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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

David Gilmour Blythe

Old Man Peering from a Jail Cell (Crime and Punishment), David Gilmour Blythe.
No, it's not a self-portrait. He was not much of a portrait artist in any case. This
work, however, seems an indication that as he matured as an artist, Blythe
gained a pretty good handle on capturing character and painterly nuance.

Art Versus the Law, 1860,
David Gilmour Blythe
Being an Ohioan, it always gives me great pleasure to highlight the work of a native-born Ohio artist, although in this case, the man spent most of his life next door in the Pittsburgh area. Nevertheless, David Gilmour Blythe was born in East Liverpool, Ohio, in 1815. East Liverpool, by the way, is a small town just down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh. Blythe was a self-taught artist and this lack of academic training often shows in his somewhat stiff, awkward figures. Like many frontier artists of his time, he began as a limner--a traveling portrait painter--one might even say the artist equivalent of a beggar. He literally went door to door, farmhouse to farmhouse begging for modest portrait commissions. His Art Versus the Law (left) depicts an artist locked out of his studio, a scene Blythe may have known well. Either he wasn't very good at likenesses, or his works were deemed by the owners' descendants as not worth saving; few of his early portraits survive. Nonetheless, Blythe was ambitious. He even tried his hand at carving monuments...from wood. His travels took him all up and down the Ohio River and as far south as New Orleans in the 1850s. In doing so, he came face to face with slavery. He didn't like what he saw.
Lincoln Crushing the Dragon, 1862, David Gilmour Blythe
Financial failure and the death of his young wife in 1855 had a profound effect upon the then 40-year-old artist. Blythe turned toward satire. He was anti-slavery but also anti-immigration. He was influenced by the works of William Hogarth, Thomas Rowlandson, and George Cruikshank, all English satirists or political cartoonists of a generation before. Satire and humor usually go hand in hand. Blythe was the exception. In his work, the two were usually divorced. His humor could be gentle, harmless, often centering on social derelicts or their juvenile counterparts. Some of his paintings could almost be considered to have influenced Norman Rockwell. Blythe's satire was far from funny. Bitter would be a better word. His painting, Lincoln Crushing the Dragon (above) depicts a fiery president angrily flailing away at the "dragon of rebellion" with a long-handled maul. Civil War political satire had little in the way of subtlety. Though a loyal Unionist, Blythe seems to have disparaged all politicians with an equal passion.

Abraham Lincoln Writing the Emancipation Proclamation, 1863, David Gilmour Blythe
Blythe's 1863 painting of Lincoln Writing the Emancipation Proclamation, while not rancorous, nonetheless pokes sly ridicule at the president in his disheveled state. We see his cluttered office, which suggests a cluttered mind, disrespect for the flag (seen used as a window curtain), and in the background, the bust of Lincoln's predecessor, James Buchanan, about to topple from a shelf. With most politicians he depicted, the kid gloves came off in favor of bare knuckles such as his A Higher Law (Southern Attack on Liberty) (below) from 1861.

A Higher Law (Southern Attack on Liberty), 1861, David Gilmour Blythe
The Dentist, David Gilmour Blythe
In depicting children, Blythe is never sentimental (often quite the opposite, in fact). His boys' colorful pranks would be considered quaint today, but in their time might be viewed as criminal misdemeanors. Not all of Blythe's work had the biting edge of satire or social comment. His The Dentist (left) could be mistaken for a Saturday Evening Post cover. By the same token, his dark, gritty depiction of the infamous conditions at Libby Prison during the war (bottom), might not seem out of place on a Civil War era version of Time magazine. Blythe learned to paint in what might be considered the best way--by painting a lot. Moreover he yearned for greatness, taking it upon himself to follow the Union army, sketching source material first-hand for future history paintings. Yet he steadfastly refused to travel eastward to compete in the major art markets of his day. He died in Pittsburgh in 1865 at the age of fifty. Though highly regarded locally in his day, it was nearly a century later before recognition as one of the top Civil War era satirist was attached to his work.

Libby Prison, 1863, David Gilmour Blythe. Having never visited the prison, the painting was based on written accounts and Blythe's vivid imagination.


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